M, a 21-year-old, Chinese male who grew up in Beijing until he turned 17 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, California, and attends the University of Southern California with his girlfriend who is from Southern China.
M’s first language was Mandarin. His family spoke Mandarin and he only learned English before moving to the United States. Because he grew up in Beijing, he believes himself to be fairly knowledgeable about the folklore that every day people participate in. This is one of the Chinese traditions in their household.
This is a Chinese superstition that M and his girlfriend’s families believe in, despite having different recounts of what the superstition is. Because they are both close with their families, he and his girlfriend would often have to change how they behaved depending on who they were around at the time. This was told to me during a small get-together at his house. The following is a transcript of the piece as told by M.
“Something that is pretty interesting that is a distinction between Northern and Southern China is that… when you’re eating like a fish… You know how when you eat a fish, they’ve like roasted or cooked the whole fish, right? And they’ve got some sauces or marinate on them. So when you eat a fish, it’s like laying this way *shows a horizontal motion* and you eat one side until there’s the fish bones. And then below that there is another side of meat, right? In Northern China, like in Beijing where I am from, people will flip the fish over to eat the other side and it means like. ‘Oh, if I’m flipping the fish over, it means that I am flipping away all the bad luck and starting fresh.’ But in Southern China, that is a big no-no. You can’t do that because if you do, it means that your fishing boat is going to turn over. It’s going to get blown over. I think the reason for this superstition is because in Southern China they were very reliant on the fishing industry for food in like the olden days. So doing something like flipping a fish over would mean that the next fishing trip would be dangerous. It’s weird because doing the same thing has two very different meanings in such close proximity, so like… my girlfriend is from Southern China, right? So when our families cook fish for events or uhh… holidays… there’s this almost contention between us over how to eat it. Though it is mostly just the older people who still believe this superstition.”
I have been out to eat with M before and never seen him do this, so it is interesting to learn that he and his girlfriend follow different traditions based on who they are around. In Northern China, they believe that flipping the fish over is getting rid of all the bad luck and starting fresh. This is very similar to the English phrase of “turning over a new leaf”, as many view that to mean one is starting fresh and discarding whatever bad things were in the past. I do not know of any physical embodiment of that phrase in American culture, but it’s interesting that, in Beijing, people must do a physical action rather than just a saying. The distinction between Southern and Northern China over the same action also showcases how local industries can influence traditions or superstitions. Southern China’s belief that the flipping of a fish will mean that a fishing boat will flip over, there is almost a voodoo vibe about this superstition. The lack of participation or belief in superstitions or traditions by the younger generation also shows that the beliefs are waning, and new ones are being formed.